Judith Marcuse, a changemaker inspired by art-focused learning

Ashoka Fellow and Changemaker, Judith Marcuse, has an impressive list of accomplishments and achievements that have led her on the path to earning this title. From academic achievements, including the award of an honorary doctorate from Simon Fraser University in 2000, to her professional accomplishments in founding an organization dedicated to art and social change and becoming a Senior Ashoka Fellow, it’s evident that Dr. Marcuse’s commitment to changemaking is indomitable.

Marcuse speaks fondly about her personal, academic and professional experience that led her on her career path. Her mother was an artist, her father a scientist, and from a young age Marcuse was immersed in social issues as well as the arts.

She attended England’s Royal Ballet School and after graduation danced professionally with companies such as the Ballet de Genève, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and England’s oldest dance company, Ballet Rambert. In a wide-ranging international career as a dancer, choreographer and artistic director, she created over 100 original works, and won Canada’s two leading awards in choreography.

After establishing her innovative ensemble, the Judith Marcuse Dance Company—which performed in Canada and around the world for some fifteen years—she made a transition to developing fully-professional evening-long social issue theatre works. Exploring the lives of young people and focusing on teen suicide, bullying, consumerism and the environment, these extended projects sharpened her long-standing interest in the relationship between the arts and positive social change.                                                                             

During the 90s, Marcuse created several festivals, including Granville Island’s The Kiss Project, and began teaching and lecturing on art for social change in countries as diverse as Ireland, Japan, South Africa, India and Pakistan.

In 2007, Marcuse’s organization, Judith Marcuse Projects, and SFU partnered in creating the International Centre of Art for Social Change (ICASC), an organization dedicated to bringing together artists, scholars, students and changemakers to better understand how art for social change practices are evolving in Canada and globally. In 2013, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) awarded ICASC a $2.5 million grant for a five-year national research project, Art for Social Change: An Integrated Research Program in Teaching, Evaluation and Capacity-Building (ASC!), the first study of its kind in Canada. Soon coming to its end, the last major public initiative is a national conference, The ART of Changing the World (ACW), will be held at Carleton University, November 3 to 5, 2017. The conference will provide attendees with the opportunity to participate in three days of knowledge-exchange, in hands-on workshops and in-depth dialogue. Marcuse hopes attendees will leave the conference with renewed passion, new knowledge and expanded networks. 

Another Marcuse initiative is the first two-year M.Ed. in Arts for Social Change program, based at SFU. The program is rooted in dialogue and direct experience and is the first of its kind in Canada, further exemplifying the university’s commitment to innovation.

Marcuse’s commitment to art and changemaking may not be have been inherited — she’s aware that she has benefitted from sometimes being in the right place at the right time as her skills and perspective have matured. However, it’s in the impact of this work that keeps her commitment alive.

Some of her most memorable recollections came when ICE: beyond cool—the work that explored teen suicide—was in performance at Vancouver’s Pacific Centre Mall. Not only did young people write that they brought their parents to see a performance, more than one wrote, “Your production saved my life!”

“The doors are definitely opening for partnerships with non-arts sectors such as health, social justice and intercultural work — so much can be gained as we break down sectoral silos through dialogue and the powerful tools of the arts,” says Marcuse. “And as the interest of young artists—and many others—in changing the world increases, they will begin to tackle their own agendas for change.”

To learn more about the International Centre of Art for Social Change and more about Judith Marcuse’s creative work, please visit the website at www.icasc.ca.